Birtwistle Games – 6

His Delight: a selection of songs and consort pieces
Night’s Black Bird
In darkness let me dwell
The Shadow of Night

New London Consort
Philip Pickett

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 4 November, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This latest “Birtwistle Games” concert gave an opportunity to hear how the saturnine inertia of Melancholia, or at least the idea of it, provided the springboard for extravagant flights of fancy by two English, though very different, composers.

The evening commenced with a selection of songs by that most melancholy of Elizabethan composers, John Dowland. His scores are descriptive rather than prescriptive; performers are free to explore the music in many different ways. And so members of the New London Consort, together with soprano Joanne Lunn and bass Michael George, presented many different possibilities, often within the same song (as was standard practice in Dowland’s time). Lute and viol, recorder and violin, organ and harpsichord: all inflected the song texts with varying colours and moods. It was unfortunate that Lunn’s singing was less than inspired: she displayed very little empathy with this music, and her interpretations were superficial at best. George was very good, but was relegated to merely singing the bass line in the songs, thereby limiting any expressive opportunities. The instrumentalists played with a rather staid, detached manner; excepting harpsichordist David Roblou: his solo elaborations, encrusted as they were with Elizabethan ornament, became wonderful evocations not only of Dowland’s soundworld, but also Byrd’s and Gibbons’s.

Birtwistle was better served by his interpreters: Night’s Black Bird (the title is derived from Dowland’s song, heard previously, “Flow, my tears…”) uses the ascending and descending semitone figure which opens Dowland’s “In darkness let me dwell”, just as does The Shadow of Night, and the nocturnal peregrinations of this humble figure were nicely traced by the Philharmonia Orchestra under the reliable guidance of Dohnányi.

Sinuous lines and glacial blocks of sound stood out in sharp relief, to be navigated by elaborations and truncated developments of the central motif, evoking both seismic eruptions and architectural stasis. The orchestration never felt cluttered; clarity and transparency were the order of the night. The Shadow of the Night is a companion piece to Earth Dances, and is its inversion: the rhythmic energy and dynamism of the latter gives way to nocturnal, evanescent musings. I should like to have heard both in the same programme (although Night’s Black Bird explores further possibilities of The Shadow of Night) for the pairing of Dowland and Birtwistle, although probably looking good on paper, really didn’t work in practice: their worlds are so different, their music requiring completely different environments in which to thrive. Then again, perhaps this failure to convince has more to do with the disparity between the two halves of the concert.

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